The month of June saw us hosting 20 students and a few professors from the Phillips Academy (a prestigious high school in the USA). The 250 year old school that works with students from the 9th to 12th grade is spread over 500 acres(!) outside of Boston and whose alumni extend to ex-US presidents and several corporate leaders. The selected group visits India as part of a program called 'Niswarth' that provides a glimpse of community work in the country.
Once again, we had the opportunity to engage these young students in the various pockets of the eco-system in Ahmedabad, (or Prem nu Parivar as Jayeshbhai calls it :) ) The intention, was to allow these extremely receptive students to absorb this way of life that most volunteers and staff uphold.
The group spent 4 intimate days observing, and then coming back to ESI, Sughad to reflect. This observing and reflecting was a process that has definied their program so far. As part of their observing process, they began by visiting the musuem and home of the Gandhi Ashram and then Seva Cafe. The next day saw them at the Manav Sadhna prayer and Gramshree and the community centres in the Ramapir No Tekro. They then switched back to reflection mode through a dinner in silence at Sughad and a circle of sharing on what they've seen.
Off the next day again when they visited a rural community nearby with Suresh and the Nandini-van, but not before renowned architect Yatin Pandya explained how time and space dynamically define architecture in India through the design principles of ESI and later Adalaj ni Vav. What really blew me away was a blog I later saw that is maintained as a means of reflection by the kids. I thought it summarised just what pure hearts these children carried with them at this young age. Almost, making me feel privileged to have interacted with them and brought tears to my eyes! Here's a blog written by 16 year olf Farris - may she go forth and continue to blossom :)
The handwritten rules of the Ghandi ashram are displayed next to the entrance to his bedroom. Their contents might seem shocking to some, especially a Westerner like me. But I think my first qualms with Ghandi came when I sat in Kasturba’s bedroom. Replicas and relics lined walls of other rooms. People came and went. Yet her bedroom was strangely empty, separate, and unrecognized. Sitting here I recognized cracks forming in Gandhi’s thinking. He preached ahimsa, yet forced such practices upon at least one other person: his wife. She did not necessarily choose a life of celibacy, and certainly paid a cost for his fame and supposed goodness.
These observations were in no way intended to threaten my firm belief in Ghandi’s greatness, but simply pointed out to me how complex morality can be. Upon further reading the Sarvodaya and immersing myself in reflection at the ashram, I encountered further confusion that more directly related to the topic Niswarth is intended to reflect upon: education. Amongst ideas about restraint and honesty, I felt something further missing in my understanding of truth within a society. Ghandi repeatedly reflects on a principle of means before ends. He refuses a utilitarian framework: everyone deserves equal recognition and the process is as vital as the results. This was in direct conflict with the traditional means of measuring policy success and the American way of thinking about how to run a society. We always weigh lives like marbles on a theoretical scale of justice, that does not and cannot take into account the more complicated moral side of life. We base policies upon economic incentives. We base everything upon an assumption of greed and immorality. American legislators do not believe that culture can be changed.
I believe that culture and morality have to be more directly part of our education, as time and time again that is what we have seen as the solution to so many problems. In Ahmedabad, we stayed at a sanitation center focused on creating rural sanitation solutions to improve quality of life and change a culture, without harming its traditions and values. When we visited the organization at the Ghandi ashram, they talked about the definition of success as the moment when even a starving child would find the owner of lost coins and return them. This was fascinating to me, and led me back to the same truth I see again and again: morality can set us free. We meditated and focused on improving our states of mind while in Ahmedabad, and I saw for the first time how my failure to control morality and my own focus and emotions hurts me. A deliberate way of living that measures success based on character and happiness could improve my way of being. This is the same with government, the same with society, and therefore the same with education. Our society fails because it is no longer values moral reflection or provides the incentives for good character that once existed. We live in a society based on desires that can never satisfy and that prevent us from moving ahead as a more just society, a better place to live. Our answers are too simple, too economic, and provide no room for true bonds of human life: our social interactions and cultural beliefs.
Yet how can we include this in an education without giving certain opinions undue power? How can a moral education be created? How can Ghandian principles spread? In my opinion, it is not vital to dictate cultural beliefs or values. To do that is to oppress a minority voice and diminish the diverse sets of beliefs that create a valuable democracy and better policies. Instead, we needed classes and forums that allow people to be more reflective and encourage students to learn to reflect. A single idea need not take precedent over another, but instead many cultural options and ethical readings should become part of the culture of our schools and be included in education not just in higher education, but even at the primary levels. This could be something like the Riverside school though perhaps more intensive and widespread. At Riverside, they focus on getting kids in touch with their communities and learning how to use their education for the good of humanity. In the end, it is about that. It is about creating engaged citizens and a culture which encourages ethical reflections and principles. I am not Indian, as the stares of many have pointed out. But when I return home, I hope to live my life as a message of greater reflection. I want to have a more pointed mind and maybe someday help to change the American mindset. Some may say we have more vital problems, and I agree that ethics can be easier when we are comfortable. Yet happiness can exist anywhere, and to truly create a better world sometimes food programs or Medicare will never be enough. Happiness is born from morality and human connection. This is the path to a better country, a better world." - Farris
Some more links to their blogs can be found here.